Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Demographic Dilemma –– Part II

Scooping David Brooks, op-ed columnist of The New York Times? As the National Car Rental commercial says, “Now that’s a good call.” OK, maybe we didn’t actually scoop him, but consider this: Had last month’s Part I of this current series (with subject matter identical to Brooks’ April 6th op-ed piece) been delivered just 10 days earlier, Viewpointe would have scooped The Times. Nevertheless, it was indeed at least a virtual scoop because the Viewpointe article was actually finalized, and transmitted to the printer exactly 11 days before Brooks’ article in The Times appeared. So, while technically not a scoop, if The Times printing schedule were identical to ours (It usually takes three weeks from the date of article submission to the delivery date in your mailbox), it would have been an actual scoop.

Like last month’s Viewpointe article, Brooks covered the contents of the Joel Kotkin book, The Next 100 Million: America in 2050. Brooks opened the article by stating: “According to recent polls, 60 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. The same percentage believes that the U.S. is in long-term decline. The political system is dysfunctional. A fiscal crisis looks unavoidable. There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy.” He then reverses sharply, writing, “But if you want to read about them stop right here. This column is a great luscious orgy of optimism. Because the fact is, despite all the problems, America’s future is exceedingly bright.” Mr. Brooks then proceeded to report how Kotkin’s hypothesis relating to America’s accelerated birth rate, especially as compared to that of other developed countries, will place the United States, “on the verge of a demographic, economic and social revival, built on its historic strengths. The U.S. has always been good at disruptive change. It’s always excelled at decentralized community building. It’s always had that moral materialism that creates meaning-rich products. Surely a country with this much going for it is not going to wait around passively and let a rotten political culture drag it down.” (I hope our no longer illustrious Congress read that last sentence.)

The Malthusian theory

Optimistic views related to accelerating population growth have not always been the dominant or even the most popular of beliefs. In 1798, when Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, describing his theory of quantitative development of human populations, he postulated, “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” (He obviously could not foresee the development of Viagra, or the creation of various birth control pills and devices.) Malthus then wrote, “Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.”

For the next 150 years this Malthusian theory, stating that excessive population growth will outpace the earth’s capacity to provide enough food did seem to apply. In fact, as described in Wikipedia: “At the time Malthus wrote, and for 150 years thereafter, most societies had populations at or beyond their agricultural limits. However, after World War II, the so-called Green Revolution produced a dramatic increase in productivity of agriculture, and, consequently, growth of the world's food supply. In response, the growth rate of the world's population accelerated rapidly, resulting in predictions by Paul R. Ehrlich, Simon Hopkins, and many others of an imminent Malthusian catastrophe. However, populations of most developed countries grew slowly enough to be outpaced by gains in productivity. By 1990, agricultural production appeared to begin peaking in several world regions.”

Is the world capable of supporting the 2,800,000,000 more people projected to increase the global population by the year 2050? Ironically, it is not the developed countries that will contribute to this problem, one that some still view as a potential catastrophe. In fact, most of the world’s developed countries face the flip side of the problem, a birth rate that is at best stable, and at worst (like Russia, Japan, and Germany) declining significantly. Just nine countries are expected to account for half of the world’s projected population increase: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, China and Bangladesh, listed according to the size of their contribution to global population growth. Note that the United States is the only fully developed country listed.

It’s Better To Be Young

However, it is not only a higher birth rate than most other countries that will provide America with a distinct advantage throughout the next half century; the consequences of a negligible birth rate will be exacerbated by a fast aging global population. From this global perspective the world population is aging at a significantly faster rate than the United States. In actuality, America boasts the highest fertility rate among advanced countries. (I told you we are a sexy country.) This will result in the United States possessing one of the youngest demographics in the world, certainly when compared to any other of the world’s developed countries. This problematic subject of global aging was emphasized in a United Nations report published in January of this year. It stated:
  • The current aging is without any parallel in history. By 2045 the number of persons over 60 is expected to exceed those under the age of 15. In the more developed regions, where aging is advanced, this situation was already reached in 1998.

  • Today the median age for the world is 28 years, with half the world's population above that age and half above it. By mid-century the median age will likely reach 38 years.

  • Aging is affecting nearly all the countries of the world, due to reductions in fertility that have become almost universal.

  • Because fertility levels are unlikely to rise again to the high levels of the past, population aging is irreversible and the young populations that were common until recently are likely to become rare during the twenty-first century.

The UN report emphasized the detrimental impact of aging at all levels of society: “Population aging is profound, having major consequences and implications for all facets of human life. In the economic area, population ageing will have an impact on economic growth, savings investment, consumption, labour markets, pensions, taxation and intergenerational transfers.” The report continues, “In the social sphere, population ageing influences family composition and living arrangements, housing demand, migration trends, epidemiology and the need for healthcare services. In the political area, population ageing may shape voting patterns and political representation.”

The Joel Kotkin Book

In his book, The Next 100 Million, Kotkin proclaims, “Thus, unlike the rest of the world, particularly the world’s developed countries, between 2000 and 2050 the U.S. population aged 15 to 64—the key working and school-age group—will grow 42 percent, while the same group will decline by 10 percent in China, nearly 25 percent in Europe, and 44 percent in Japan. Distinct from its rivals, America's economic imperative will lie not in meeting the needs of the aging, but in providing job and income growth for our expanding workforce. What the United States does with its "demographic dividend"—that is, its relatively young working-age population—will depend largely on whether the private sector can generate jobs, an issue that's particularly critical now, with more than 15 million unemployed.”

Kotkin observes that in stark contrast to America, “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old age homes” as a result of, at best, static population growth. In addition the consequences of a fast aging population will devastate the economies of these countries already dedicated to a welfare-state structure, one that will be required to somehow confront overwhelming pension commitments –– only to discover there are too few young workers to help pay for the costs.

Despite Joel Kotkin’s, and as a result, David Brooks’ overwhelmingly positive view of America’s future, those arguments lose some credibility by ignoring the potential perils outlined by Lester Brown, another futurist. As questioned in last month’s Viewpointe, will shortages affect necessities such as drinking and irrigation water; foodstuffs; all forms of energy such as oil, natural gas, and electricity; housing? –– And how will the most critical issue of all, climate change, impact America?
Mr. Kotkin does touch on one other subject of interest when he questions, as quoted above, “whether the private sector can generate jobs?” That is not necessarily the right question. More to the point, will the demographic composition of the population by mid-century be competently educated, scientifically skilled, intellectually prepared –– to fill the “Knowledge Job” requirements for the “information Age” of the future? Next month’s article will attempt to answer that question.